Frozen (2013) Review

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Frozen-PosterWhen I saw the teaser trailer for Frozen earlier this year I was a little put off. I knew it was a clip that was not going to appear in the movie but it reminded me a little of the Finding Nemo teaser – in that it did nothing to make me want to see the movie at all. Now, we all know how brilliant Nemo turned out to be, and looking back at the teaser while knowing the characters I see it in a different light. Therefore I am always willing forego my initial aversion and give the full film a chance.

Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” Frozen marks a(nother) return to the Disney musicals of recent & distant past. It opens with a standard working song on a frozen lake but it felt right. We are quickly introduced to our two main characters (princesses, of course) as children: Elsa and her younger (more adventurous) sister Anna. The opening story runs rather quickly and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Elsa has otherworldly powers: she can manufacture and control ice & snow. With great power comes great responsibility, of course, but she is unable to control her gift (she should look to commiserate with Bobby Drake in the Marvel Universe). Something goes wrong while the children are playing and Elsa is forced to hide her power forever. The king & queen close the doors of the castle and don’t allow anyone in or out which creates a rift between the once close siblings and causes Anna to grow up stir crazy (not unlike a certain young Tangled lady – more on that later).

Years pass and their parents die, so Elsa is crowned Queen one midsummer. She opens the doors for the coronation, much to the delight of Anna, but has not been able to control her powers during her isolation and accidentally reveals her “gift” to the shock of all the dignitaries & townspeople. Oh, and she unknowingly freezes the known world (as far as we are allowed to see). So, like various Frankensteins before her, Elsa is deemed a monster and runs off into hiding. It’s up to Anna and some newfound friends (she didn’t have any while growing up in the castle, so all of her friends are new) to find Elsa & convince her to bring back summer. And everyone sings about their feelings.

I saw Frozen in 3D and the animation is top notch. It is the best ice & snow I have ever seen drawn on screen (sorry Ice Age 1-4) and the added depth of 3D really shines when peering through and around various blocks of ice & flurries/blizzards of snow. The ice sculptures & fractals are breathtaking. Beyond that, however, it looks like a cold Tangled. I don’t mean this to be a dig at the animators because I know a few and they work tirelessly for our entertainment, but this has a very similar look and feel to that Rapunzel movie.

When Disney Animation ventured into CGI territory it was a gamble (and a hedge against Pixar) that I thought paid off greater dividends with every release. It was different than their hand drawn princess fare and each film had its own look. Chicken Little looked nothing like Meet The Robinsons looked nothing like BoltTangledWreck-it Ralph. Each movie had its own style and was decidedly different from the 2D films of the past. They broke into the princess field with Tangled but it wasn’t a full-fledged musical and actually had a bumbling “prince” & super-feisty princess to turn their normal formula slightly on its ear. With Frozen the characters look like they could have stepped out of Tangled and into this movie. Anna is very Rapunzel-ish and I half expected to have her break out into “I See The Light” with one of the male leads. Which brings me to the music.

As I said, the opening working song is serviceable yet forgettable. The child Anna sings a very cute song about playing with her sister (“Do You Want To Build A Snowman?”) and, when the gates finally open after years of being closed, the grown-up Anna (Kristen Bell) sings a rousing song about being free (“First Time In Forever”). I was all at once amazed at Bell’s talent and the fact that the songs were bringing in some of that old Disney musical feeling. When Elsa (Idina Menzel) finally opened her mouth to sing I knew we were in for a treat. Her powerful voice is instantly recognizable as the “Wicked” witch Elphaba. Add-in the fact that her character is someone who has magical powers but doesn’t know how or why, and is shunned because she has them, and the green fanbase will be more than satisfied. BUT once Anna and a Prince sing their meet-cute song (“Love Is An Open Door”) it started to feel like High School Musical. Then when Elsa sings her showstopper (“Let It Go”) it was a little like American Idol. This is not a comment on Menzel’s abilities, but the song itself. The classic feel was gone in an instant, and almost never returned. The snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) has an hilarious number in the middle of the film (“In Summer”) but the modern style again doesn’t seem to fit what was established before.

Anachronisms were sure to abound for humor’s sake, and it is quite funny, but they turn the story & musical numbers into a bit of a mess. One minute it’s royal coronations and trading with other kingdoms and the next it’s “totally” this or “feisty pants” that & a “yah, sure” Finnish(?) sauna salesman. Most of the back story and motivations are severely underdeveloped and fly by too quickly to absorb. We do not know how or why Elsa’s powers exist or if it happens to anyone else (besides the magical trolls, who give the parents the worst advice of all: SPOILER ALERT to erase/change Anna’s memories so she doesn’t know Elsa has powers END SPOILER). I found the lack of a villain refreshing because we can focus on the tension the sisters experience, but shoehorning a villain in at the end felt cheap, obvious & rote. The resolution is a nice & welcome twist on true love’s kiss but again happens too fast. The sum of the whole is decidedly average, and I’ve come to expect more in the story from Executive Producer John Lasseter & Disney. I would originally give it a C but the animation and quality of voice acting/singing should not be dismissed, and rethinking some of the situations has lessened my sting slightly.

My grade: B-

NOTE: The opening short – “Get A Horse” – is a wonderful exercise in nostalgia that quickly turns to modern CGI for help. It was developed to appear as if from a time when Walt Disney still voiced Mickey Mouse (as he does here). They nail the old-timey gags and situations and make great use of 3D. The characters literally jump through the screen and the holes they leave behind reveal something very creative. Very inventive and just plain fun.

10 responses »

  1. Great review. It’s interesting that you bring up the marketing because based on the television spots (and the trailers I’ve seen) I still have absolutely no idea what Frozen is about beyond a living snowman’s “Scrat”-like misadventures. Terrible job by Disney.

  2. A friend of mine who writes kids TV stuff (The Penguins of Madagascar, Monsters Vs. Aliens) saw it at a guild screening and really liked it. He said the conflict and the music weren’t what they could have been, but the rest was great. He especially liked the animation and use of the space on the screen. He also thought the Mickey short was just awesome.

  3. Nice review Joe. No matter what, the kids will love it. Most parents will do, too, and I think that’s what matters the most as well.

  4. Can’t say I disagree with your review, Joe. Any female empowerment theme goes out the window by having both female characters with physiques of a Barbie Doll. The songs are forgettable, except the hook for “Let It Go” is still in my head (the rest of the song I couldn’t hum for you).

    The CGI is great, but it gives the movie a kind of less than warm feel (no pun intended). I miss the hand-drawn days.

  5. I don’t think it was the dumbest thing said. I think Disney’s initial marketing until maybe end of October/early November was not so great. To me it looks like they played catchup BIG time once WOM spread, responded faster than probably any company has previously, and came out looking like geniuses. The slow roll worked to their advantage and lead Forbes to believe that was their plan the whole time. http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottdavis/2014/01/15/what-marketers-should-learn-from-disneys-frozen/

    EDIT: An in depth counterpoint to my opinion http://jimhillmedia.com/editor_in_chief1/b/jim_hill/archive/2014/04/23/disney-s-marketing-of-quot-frozen-quot-may-have-frustrated-animation-fans-but-it-won-over-a-far-wider-audience.aspx

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